tv Book Discussion on Redeployment CSPAN July 5, 2014 3:15pm-4:04pm EDT
>> croons croons providing live coverage. >> iraq war veteran phil klay is next on book tv. heehó discusses his collection f short stories about soldiers who fought in iraq and afghanistan and the experiences they had while back in the u.s. between deployments. this is 45 minutes. >> thank you. there we go. thanks so much for coming here. good to be here. this is my first time in l.a. so be good to me. it's a thrill to be here with
tony. so, the book is twelve short stories from different perspectives. and i'm going to start out with a -- just read the opening of the story about an artillery unit, called "ten clicks south." large base, and the fab's in iraq. you're in a combat zone but they're large, really secure, and they're like little miniature cities. they have, like, workout facilities and a chow hall and there's some -- some marines who never left them who were referred to as fab-its, and this story is set in camp fallujah. someone wrote a song set to the tune of hotel california, and
the course was, welcome to the hoe tell camp fallujah. you're in a come bad zone go get your ice cream cone. gives you the feel for them. but this unit is an artillery unit so they're engaged. all right. this morning our gun dropped 270 pounds of icm on a smuggler's checkpoint ten clicks south of us elm took out a group of insurgents and then went to the chow hall. i got fish and lima beans. at the table all of us are smiling and laughing, still jittery with nervous excitement and i keep wringing my hands and twisting my wedding'cç band. got a big plate of ravioli and pop tarts, and before digging in, -- the persian gulf do they have pop tarts everywhere? >> a lot of pop tarts around there. >> what the? >> nutter butters, too.
>> it was weird. before digging in, he looks up and down the table and says, i can't believe we finally had an rd mission. sanchez says, it's about time we killed someone. sergeant deets laughs. even i chuckle a little. we had been in iraq two months. one of the few artillery units actually doing artillery, except so far we have only shot illumination missions. some other guns in the battery had shot bad guys but not us, not until today. today the whole damn battery fired and we know we hit our target. the lieutenant told us so. jute, who had been pretty quiet, asked, how many insurgent does you think we killed? platoon size element. why do you think we needed the whole dam battery, says sergeant deets-grunting out the words. we didn't, says bow lander, each
gun fires two rounds. one round of icm would be enough to take out a platoon in open desert. no way we needed the whole battery but it was fun. the sergeant says, that's what it was, and two rounds a gun is what we needed to take it out. but, says youth jewity, in a small voice, i didn't many the whole battery, our gun. how many did just our gun kill? how aim supposed to know, sass the sergeant. 40, i say? figure six guns, six, i don't no 6.6 people per gun. yeah, sis bolna der. we killed exactly 6.6 people.t( sanchez start doing the math, scratching out the numbers. divide it by nine marines on the gun and you personally have cooled 0 -- killed 0.7 something people today, maybe a torso and
a head, maybe a torso and a legw that's not tuny, jewity. >> we're better shots, says sergeant dietz. put a round down a rabbit hole at 18 miles. even if we were on target, we were on target, says sergeant dietz, okay, sergeant, we were on target. maybe they were already dead. the shrapnel into shatters corps, jerking limbs this way and chat. look, says bolander maybe some insurgent had shrapnel in thearchies, and he clutches his chest as if he's dying in a black and white movie. then blows his head off. he was dying already but the cause of death would be blowing the hell up, not shrapnel to the chest.
the weirdness of re-entry into american life, and i was working on a novel alongside the story. very quickly the stories became most important thing to me for that reason, you come back from war, especially now because it's like less than one percent serve, so i'm from new york, i go back to new york and i'm one of the few veterans that people meet. and they would ask me, so, how is iraq going? what's -- and you feel like you can actually explain.
you can sort of pontificate to them what iraq is, even though everybody kind of only sees this little small piece of it. and everybody interprets their experience differently. so i wanted to have stories that would tell not just kind of the stories of the grunts or the stories in artillery unit or whatever, but also the experiences of the support staff, what it was like to be a chaplain, mortuary affairs specialist. and how those people dealt with the -- what happened overseas and then what happened when they came back, and it felt like, with the collection i could sort of hit the same themes, the narrative of the first story is kill people up close. the act of killing is central to the military. but his relationships couldn't be more different than the artillery men in that piece i just read.
or some of the other characters in the book. so i was able to talk about the same things from different angles and think about what this meant, and so i slowly worked until i had what felt like a cohesive piece of work, then to the there are no characters that cross over. >> there's -- specially in this story, the guys are breaking down a kill into -- artillery guys say they're always dealing with numbers but seems throughout -- throughout people are trying to make sense of what happened. right? so these guys are using numbers, and other stories how are these veterans or their friends attempting to make sense of this thing, that they've -- >> right, well, we -- sometimes think of war as a sort of like
other experience. you sort of journey to the heart of darkness and gaze into the abyss and then come back, sadder but wiser, with this inexpressible knowledge you can -- you know -- never tell but -- but it's also like military is a job, right? and you go into the job with all the stories about the military that you have been told. and then you come back home, to all the stories about the military people believe about you, and so there's a great bit in a book, what it's like to go to war, and he says, ask the 20-year-old combat veteran what it feels like to kill someone. and his possible angry answer if he is being honest, he might say not a fucking thing. but if you ask that same guy 20 years later, 40 years later, his answer might be very, very different depending on the people who have been around him and who he is and what he has been through.
and so, it's this kind of slow way that the characters need to navigate. some of them are dealing with things in theater. one of the stories is about two marines, one who kills a teenaged combatant, and then asks his friend to tell everybody necessary the unit that he is the one who did it because the guy who actually killed the teenage combatant doesn't want to have to tell the story or talk about it. so his friend of sort of like working through what that meant. dealing with coming back to american society and how to present themselves as veterans in war that a lot of americans don't pay that much attention to or sort of fully understand. >> in terms of presenting -- what does fiction -- what does
fiction allow you to do and what do you think fiction allows cohort of your peers and what do they react against? >> fiction is -- you put yourself in the skulling are right? so fiction invites the reader to think about that experience from the inside. which was really important to me. it's important to me to bring the reader in and also have narrators who wouldn't necessarily agree with each other. right? so you can start making kind of valued judgments about the sort of claims about their experience they're making. it also lets you pressurize things. the questions i came black -- came back with, were questions about not just what i'd been through but what people i'd known had been through. there were -- i couldn't have
explored those things through memoir. i like good memoir. i can't talk shit about memoirs with a memoirist. >> sure you can. >> but for me personally, think -- i find it hard because the story -- there are stories you want to tell yourself about what you have been through. but if you put it into fiction, you take those ideas you have about the world and you put it into a story and then you need to make the characters real, and invariably those characters in the process of making them real, like just destroy all the notions you had about what you were originally writing. and i guess that's one of the things that is valuable for me. >> if you do it well -- i've. >> i've written memoir issue essays. >> do you want to read more?
>> yes. so, this is the opening of the story called "bodies." it's about a mortuary affairs marine. for a long time i was angry. i didn't want to talk about iraq so i wouldn't tell anybody i'd been. and if people knew, if they pressed, i'd tell them lies. there was the hajj corpse lying in the streets. then i'd luke at my audience and size them up, see if they wanted know keep going. you'd be surprise how many do. that what i did, i say. i collected remains. u.s. forces mostly but sometimes iraqis, even insurgents. there are two ways to tell the story, funny or sad.
guys like it funny with gore and a grin on your face at the end. girls like it sat with a thousand yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can't quite see. otherwise it's the same story. the lieutenant colonel sees two marines maneuvering around a body bag and decides he'll go show what a regular guy he is and help. as i tell the story. he has huge hands and says, here marks recent,let me help you with that, and without waiting for us to respond or warn him off he reaches down and grabs the body bag. then i describe how he launches up. always doing a clean and jerk. he was strong, hugging the mat, would say, but the bag rips on the edge of the truck's back gate and theirs a big jagged tear through the stomach,
rotting fluids and organs drop out. human soup hits him in the face, running down his mustache. i'm telling the story sad. i can stop there if i'm telling it funny, though, there's one more crucial bit which corporate g had done when he told the story to me for the first time back in 2004, before either of us had collected remains or knew what we were talking about. i don't know where g heard the story. the colonel screamed like a bitch, g said, and then he made a weird high-pitched keening noise, deep in his throat, like a wheezing dog. this was to show us precisely how bitchs scream when covered in rotting human fluids if you get the noise right, you get a laugh. what i liability about the story even if it happened it was still total bullshit. after deployment, there wasn't anybody, not even corporal g,
who talked about the remains that way. some in motor ware -- midway through the deployment, guys started swearing they could feel spirits everywhere. not just around the bodies and not just marine dead. sunni dead. shia dead, kurd dead, christian dead, all the dead of all iraq and the dead of all iraqi history, decaying empire in the american invasion. i never felt any ghosts. leave a body in the sun, the outer layer of skin detaches from the lower, and you feel it slide around in your hands. leave a body in water, everything swells and the skin feels waxy and thick but recognize blue human. that's all. except for me and corporal g, though, everybody in mortuary affairs talk about ghosts. we never said any different. [applause]
>> a lot hoff these stories are told in the first person. you seem to be occasionally celebrating the marshal and even the mass christian, and then -- masculine, and then interrogating it, and working stories at both levels. did you plan on that or did these stories -- for instance, the mortuary affairs, you were a public affairs officer, you talked to some of these guys. >> yeah. >> did you come home and when you started that story, did you know how you were going to work them? did you know how you would use them? >> i never had any idea. i knew there were things that sort of interested me. i'd heard that story that i just told, about i also
-- the way that the mortuary affairs guys talked about their job -- also a good memoir by a mortuary affairs marine jessica goodell, shade of black, and it was very different. and i usually had a couple different pieces i knew kind of -- that's the opening of the story and then there's sort of maybe four or five more significant scenes that happened. a lot of them at home. and and i knew those things talked to each other, or at least they stayed in my mind and seemed to fit together, and some of them were not stories about war. one of them was a story about, like, going out to a club, right? it seemed to resonate and then i would write the story, and i'd write it again and again and send it to friends and write it again, until i sort of had a good feel for why those different things talked to each other and what they meant.
yeah. >> you also seem to be indicting story-tellers, too and sort of like the nature of war stores, how they're told, why they're told, and kind of like who gets to tell them. there's do you own these stories now? >> do i own the stories? >> yes. the g -- >> corporal g? well, there's a lot of room for bullshit in story telling. it doesn't have to be this. the story of my drunken night and what happened. you tell that story and the first time you see where you get the laughs and the next time the story gets streamlined, and then evenly you have a kind of pat recitation of what happened. that's an effective story and feels totally false when you tell it.
and the story becomes the memory. one of the weird things writing this book sometimes i draw on things that actually happened to me and i would change them, and afterwards it would be, like, what was the real store and what is the story i wrote down? you know? it's difficult to tell. and so -- which isn't the same assaying the stories are bullshit. it's just that kind of interrogation about what you're telling and why you're telling it is really important, and this is -- to go back to the thing about memoir, what augustine does, basically throws up his hands and is like, we're kind of corrupted but he relies on divine illumination about himself, and that kind of questioning about why you're telling the story and what the purpose is, is important for actually being able to communicate anything real.
>> i had a strange -- it's been about a year since i read your book in manuscript, and i swear there was a memory i thought was mine, and i picked up your book and saw, that is one of phil's stories, when the guys are getting wasted in a bar in new york city. i did that once or twice with vets. but -- it confused me for a minute, and i also thought about -- i've been thinking about this talk for a while. and looking forward to it. and trying to figure out, do i excavate -- is there any solid ground in telling war stories? and if not, why? >> i think there is but it's a process. go back to the bit i mentioned earlier. we don't figure anything out. especially anything extreme on
our own. >> is a vietnam vet who wrote this amazing novel called matterhorn, and he spent 35 years writing it, and came out in probably 2009, 2010, but brilliant look at combatants. marine infantry, and has also written about men at war. >> sometimes there's a notion you can't communicate war experience, which is ultimately harmful because you need other people to help fishing out what you have -- figure out what you have been through. the example i use for this -- doesn't have to be war. it can be a bad relationship. we have all had the experience of talking to somebody who is like, my girlfriend is such a -- she's a psychopath and then they tell you what she did and you're like, you sound like the ass -- ass -- -- asshole in this story.
maybe you're the dick. that's why we go to other people, because if you're in -- if you have been to war, certainly you'll be very emotionally invested in that. it's hard to figure it out on your own. and so i think that story-telling is ultimately extremely important but just kind of fraught with all these pitfalls and that -- the narrator of the story i just read is aware of some of the ways that war stories work, or can work, and he manipulates them because he doesn't want to open himself up to the other kinds of questions that would come up if he actually starts telling the real stuff on his mind. >> they're all fairly sophisticated story-tellers, and maneuverers of fact and fiction. should we open it up to the crowd? >> sure. >> any questions? >> all right, great.
>> we take insults, too. we charge more. >> one of the things that i was thinking about while i was reading this, my father was a veteran of world war~ii, he was in everybody major are major battle of the pacific and i heard nothing about it until he was in his 80s and dying. wonder if we have come a was where we who are at home can try to understand some part of it, at least. >> i've heard that a lot. a lot of people have talk about the world war~ii generation, never talked, and then -- but then a lot of them started talking -- a lot of memoirs and things came out, even self-published from people right as they were dying, and they realized they really did want to talk about it. it's a little different with the -- there were so many people involved in world war~ii, so if you read, like, sam hines wrote an essay in the 1960s, about
going to college on the g.i. bill after world war~ii, and, like, there's -- they're putting up extra housing for all the vets, and all the vets walk around, like if you were working with planes, you would wear one thing, and other guys would have like little a beef with each other, and vets from iraq and afghanistan go to college and they're alone. they're like the only guys. they can't talk about this stuff with each other. the other thing about world war~ii that is kind of -- sort of the most insane horrific war stories i every heard have been told by veterans of world war ii and it's weird if you have this experience. war at its best is ugly thing. it's the industrial scale killing of other human beings. and i think it's a little odd to
sort of like -- the things that stay in your mind are the really fucked up things and it's kind of odd to come back to -- iraq and afghanistan -- come back to being called a hero for what you have done, if you feel like i'm proud of my service, but it also is complicated, right? and then, of course, the vietnam generation had a very different reception. so that colors the way that the vets start talking about what they've been through. it's what you said is very true. i've heard that from a lot of people, that they never talked except at the very end of their life and then they realize they really did want to tell the stories. [inaudible conversations] >> thank you.
[inaudible conversations] >> wikipedia, your father trying to discourage you -- and found that -- i wonder if he had actually given you some -- like the things they carried, by tim o'bryan, and books like war is a racket, or must have been a teenager when tom cruise's movie came out, "born of the 4th of july." did any of that affect you, it wouldn't be you? >> that was for me? sorry. my father did discourage me from joining but my father wasn't a reader, and so there was no literature around about war. and i think probably would have -- i mean, his best advice
to me, once i did join, was kind of cliche but it's true, don't go out and try to be a hero, like my father saw guys who wanted to be heroes and died in vietnam. and i also saw a guy standing in front of him at the chow line get hit bay -- by a sniper. he knew it was a -- as phil said in its very best circumstances, a brutal heinous machine. i'm not sure i've answered your question. >> have you since read tim o'brien's, the things they carried? >> sure, of course, yes. >> phil and i were talking about "the things they cared." i read that after i got out of the marine corps and in my 20s. it came out in '91, like while the gulf was war actually
happening. and then i was just eating mres and listening -- tim's work is great. i want to ask phil about literature of war that kind of -- has mattered to him and also if you feel linkage between, say, tim o'brien or phil caputo or karl milante, if you feel like your book is following in line with some of those books and telling the same kinds of stories. >> there's a lot of books. i had a professor in college, a poet, fantastic poet, tom slays, who -- when he learned i was joining the marine corps, had me read, like, tolstoy and
hemingway, to fill my head with a little bit of wisdom from some of the smartest people to write about war. the cannon of war writing is grim. i was reading, "the good soldier." the great world war 1 novel written by a czech anarchist. while i was writing one of the stories in here. as i was writing the book i was also reading things to inform me -- to inform me about kind of technical matters, so i get the details ruth of these different jobs, but also i was reading tough get the emotional things right. so times it was war literature, and sometimes it was like a diary of a country priest, or beer in the snooker club. a brilliant egyptian novel. or whatever it might be.
>> you're way too well read. earlier you talked about the individual's experience of war, which is really tiny. mine was especially typy. i was -- tiny. i was in a 19-unit platoon, and when i first wrote about the first gulf war and having been in the marine corps, i read dozens and dozens of the books written by journalists and i read the rand reports, because i really didn't know what was happening outside of a very small area of operation. and so did you do -- you were an officer and you had a bigger scope in general -- >> i did the exact same thing. i was reading special inspector general reconstruction reports, read a lot of memoirs, i talked to a lot of marines who might know something about the subject. i had to do a lot of research. and -- trying to get it as right
as possible. >> anyone else? >> martin luther king famously said, war is an enemy of the poor. do you have thoughts on that, and also on the new war fronts that are emerging with technology and quests for world dominance. >> um, well, i don't know. i think that -- how do you answer that question depends on what warrior talking about. i think that for the iraq war, certainly the huge majority of the cost is borne by the iraqi people, which is -- yeah,
there's a lot of things you can say about that. but it was very strange to me and continues to be strange, i think, the degree of disconnect we have as a citizenry and ultimately when you join the military, you're entrusting yourself to the u.s. body politic. right? they're going to ensure that you -- you're fighting for a reason, that your lives and your efforts will be well-spent. to the greatest degree possible. and in that regard, certainly it's very strange to come back from iraq where there's a lot of brutal things happening and realize that we don't really feel like a country at war, and then to get out of the military and dish went back to new york, where you just don't have to think about the fact we're at
war if you don't want, to but i have friends going to afghanistan, and the decisions we're making as a country are hugely important, but it's easy not to think about. a very small percentage of the population that serves, and then in terms of your question about the technology of warfare, having drone strikes and special operations, it's an even sort of a fraction of a fraction that we're talking about now. and i think that whenever we employ violent force, which i think sometimes we should, we as citizens, right, should keep a watchful eye on our government and ensure we're doing so with as much -- forsight as possible. >> anyone else, questions for phil on this side of the room?
>> thank you for coming out: the iraq and afghanistan wars were the first wars fought by the u.s., long wars fought by the u.s. of a volunteer army. how has that changed the nature of service, if any, for nose who actually fought since they raised their hands? >> changes in a lot of ways. just talk about a big part of it. i think that it -- we're much more disconnected. i think that the sort of divide between civilians and military is pretty wide. and i think a lot of veterans feel that very acutely. we -- you sort of come back to a positive reception. people get thanked for their service. it's not like of vietnam. but there's also that degree of
apathy. you have extremely professional military, right? so, when you read about the kind of things that went on, in, like, world war~ii, for example, or you think about the kind of -- well, it's a highly professional military. only volunteer. so that just changes the nature of the units. everybody signed up, everybody there is for a common cause. yeah. so, it changes the dynamic of the units, think, greatly. in a ton of ways. >> over here in the back in the green. okay. >> i just wonder in your book,
>> and the consequences of that ths the early policy decisions kind of played out over the years, right? and so there's certainly details with that. but i wasn't, you know, i wasn't particularly interested in, you know, debating at the grand policy level because i more wanted people to think about what it meant to be one of those marines or, you know, to be a state department guy trying to actually build the society up and what that was like and how it was affected by the past, what that was like on a day-to-day basis. >> we have time for one or two more questions.
>> okay. yes, in the back. please wait for the mic though. thanks. >> were you writing when you deployed, or were you thinking of writing? and did you, when you were thinking of these stories when you wrote them, were you taking notes when you were deployed, or was this all from recall? >> i took a lot of notes when i was deployed. i was writing but not about war. i was writing mostly very, very bad short stories. and i think midway through i learned that anthony powell had quit writing during world war ii, ask i felt like that excuse -- and i felt like that excused me for all the things that i had written that were just awful. but i did, you know, i i did come back with notes and a lot of memories. but i think more than, more than, like, the source material that i had -- and due to the
nature of hi job, i traveled a lot around anbar province, and i spent time with a lot of different units doing a lot of different types of things. so that certainly affected how this book, what this book was like, because, you know, you talk with, you know, the guys at military affairs, you talk with infantry guys or what have you, you get a different picture of the war. you get a different picture of the war, actually, from people -- i have two friends named matt, they were both cavalry, they were both deployed to the same area, they both work with the the same translator, but one was in 2006, i think, almost two years later. and their wars couldn't have been more different. so, you know, but mainly what it cave me was just a subject -- gave me us was just a subject that felt mightily important to me. so i had to do a lot of work as i was writing the collection.
but it mattered to me. i was kind of writing in a sort of state of terror of getting it wrong, right? because of, you know, my obligation, the obligation i felt to the material, right? an obligation to, which also meant, like, telling uncomfortable things, right? ask and telling things that maybe might upset people. yeah. >> i'll take the last question. so, you know, wars make, wars make writers and wars make myths, and i wonder for you what's the, as these wars begin to kind of fade certainly, you know, they're not on our front pages anymore, but what do you think should endure in the culture in terms of an understanding of the young men and women who served and, you know, what should we know? what should we continue to know?